What a difference a year makes. Around this time last year, the West was gearing up for military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That intervention never came to pass as Russia President Putin negotiated a more peaceful resolution.
Now under pressure Obama is contemplating airstrikes on Islamic State militants operating in Iraq and in Syria, these are the same fighters belonging to a terrorist organization that is leading the war against Assad that Obama supported last year along with others like John McCain, so embarrassing for McCain ISIS posted a picture on their facebook page of them with senator McCain last year.
The Islamic State’s territorial gains in Iraq and continued repression and slaughter of religious minorities there and in Syria have rightly triggered global condemnation. “I am no apologist for the Assad regime,” Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, said. “But in terms of our security, the Islamic State is by far the greatest threat.”
The irony of the moment is tragic. But to some, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Many cautioned against the earlier insistence of the Obama administration (as well as other governments) that Assad must go, fearing what would take hold in the vacuum.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who warned Obama against U.S. intervention in Syria in a New York Times op-ed last September. He wrote:
“A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”
Putin’s insistence was couched in a reading of the conflict in Syria that’s more cold-blooded than the view initially held by some in Washington. “Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country,” Putin wrote, suggesting that the nominally secular Assad regime, despite its misdeeds, was a stabilizing force preferable to what could possibly replace it.
Putin decried the growing Islamist cadres in the Syrian rebels’ ranks:
“Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria?”
That’s a concern very publicly shared now by U.S. and European officials, who are alarmed by the considerable presence of European nationals among the Islamic State’s forces. A British jihadist who spoke with a London accent is believed to have carried out the shocking execution of American journalist James Foley this week.
That Western attention has shifted so dramatically from the murders carried out by the Assad regime to those carried out by the militants fighting it is a sign of the overwhelming complexity of the war, which is collapsing borders and shaking up politics in countries across the Middle East.
It’s worth considering what Putin’s government insisted not long after the violence began. In his New York Times op-ed, Putin reminded readers that from “the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future.” That “plan for the future,” the Russians insisted, had to involve negotiation and talks between the government and the opposition, something which the opposition rejected totally at the time.
In November 2011, Putin’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov criticized other foreign powers, including the United States, for not helping pressure opposition forces to come to the table with the Assad regime. “We feel the responsibility to make everything possible to initiate an internal dialogue in Syria,” Lavrov said at a meeting of APEC foreign ministers in Hawaii.